Two Burmese journalists for Reuters were honoured in absentia with the PEN America 2018 Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Tuesday in New York, as they remain behind bars more than 8,000 kilometres away, facing charges for what the international news agency says was “simply doing their jobs.”
The award, established in 2016, “is designed to honor a writer imprisoned for his or her work,” coming from an organisation known globally for its free speech advocacy.
It was accepted on behalf of the two men — Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 — by members of their families.
“We are very sorry for what he didn’t do. He’s in prison. Actually, he didn’t do anything wrong but he’s in prison. That’s very sad for me,” the brother of Wa Lone, Thura Aung, said at Tuesday’s awards ceremony. “I’m also very proud for him because of his dream for his belief and everybody’s supporting him around the world.”
The Reuters journalists’ case has caused international outcry as they face charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which could see them imprisoned for up to 14 years. They were arrested in Yangon on Dec. 12, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents.
The trial began in January and has centred on the reporters’ work with Reuters colleagues to uncover a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in September. Burma’s government has acknowledged the killings, but prosecutors have continued to move forward with the case against the men.
Their investigative reporting was published in February, a lengthy exposé that found both Burmese security forces and local Buddhists in the village of Inn Din, Rakhine State, responsible for the extrajudicial slaughter.
Last month, seven Burmese soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for their role in the killings.
At the ceremony honouring the Burmese journalists and others in New York on Tuesday, the Canadian author Margaret Atwood read out a statement from the imprisoned men, which said in part: “Where is the truth and justice? Where is the democracy and freedom? Why do soldiers, who are found guilty of murder, get 10 years while we journalists, who exposed the murder, face 14 years in prison? Do you think that’s fair?”
Speaking on their behalf, she continued: “We want the people to understand that we never betrayed the country. The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days and stop us from being able to write news. But we want to tell them right here that they can never hide the truth.”
Officials from several foreign embassies in Yangon, and advocacy groups based both in Burma and abroad, have been closely monitoring the trial, many with a critical eye toward what they view as a politically motivated prosecution.
Family members of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were photographed along with Peter Barbey, the award’s namesake, holding signs bearing the #FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo hashtag, which has gained traction online as the trial has dragged on. The actress Cynthia Nixon — of “Sex and the City” fame and who has rebooted her public profile in recent months with a bid for the New York governorship — also attended Tuesday’s gala and joined calls for the imprisoned journalists’ release.
The Reuters duo will next appear in court on Monday.